Firefighters battle a blaze in a building on the Seaside Park boardwalk on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Seaside Park, N.J. The fire began in a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park section of the boardwalk and quickly spread north into neighboring Seaside Heights. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (AP) — They were the kind of places that made for family memories of french fries and ice cream, but also created some raucous reality TV, like the time Snooki was laid out by a barroom sucker punch.
They included an arcade where New Jersey’s governor played Skee Ball with his wife and kids, and a shop where he ate pizza (at least before his recent weight-loss surgery). There were three frozen custard shacks, games of chance, and stores where tourists could buy naughty T-shirts.
And now they’re gone, reduced to smoldering ruins by a spectacular fire that engulfed more than four blocks of a Jersey shore boardwalk that had been rebuilt just five months ago after being destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.
“We’re wiped out again. It’s just unimaginable,” said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade, which reopened June 1 — and struggled all summer — after Sandy’s floodwaters ruined game machines and other equipment.
The cause of Thursday’s blaze was under investigation, though prosecutors said they had seen no evidence it was suspicious.
Sending giant orange and red fireballs rolling 50 feet into the sky, the fire brought a painful sense of deja vu to the side-by-side communities of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, which rely on the boardwalk and beach for their economic survival.
Three police officers leaving the fire scene were injured Friday morning when they fell from an emergency vehicle; two suffered head injuries. A county spokesman said the officers were “stable and recovering.”
Gov. Chris Christie, as he did just after the Oct. 29 storm, vowed the two towns would rebuild.
“I will not permit all the work we’ve done over the last 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night,” he said, standing across the street from a still-smoldering pizza shop and a gutted arcade that he used to patronize with his family.
He added: “We will make new memories, because that’s what we do.”
President Barack Obama praised the first responders who helped fight the fire and pledged support for state and local efforts to rebuild and recover again.
Christie said about 30 businesses were destroyed, although authorities in the two towns said Thursday night more than 50 businesses had been wrecked, including 32 in Seaside Park and more than 20 in Seaside Heights.
Paul Schneider, who owns three small boardwalk stands, was stunned.
“Everything’s gone. I can’t believe this is happening again,” said Schneider, who had to rip out damaged electrical wiring and replace sodden merchandise after Sandy.
Seaside Park officials began planning Friday morning to rebuild their part of the boardwalk, at the southern end, where the fire began near a frozen custard stand. Most of the boardwalk shared by the two towns was still intact.
Bob Martucci, the borough administrator, said it will cost $600,000 to rebuild the borough-owned boardwalk. Individual businesses would not be included in that cost, he said.
The ruined businesses included pizza shops, wheel-of-chance games, and a seafood restaurant whose Facebook page on Friday read simply “R.I.P.”
There were french fry stands, a fudge shop and bar-and-grills, including one where Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was punched in the face during filming of the first season of MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” Another bar wrecked by Sandy had not had the chance to reopen before being engulfed by flames.
The Funtown amusement pier was so badly damaged by Sandy it could not reopen this summer. It burned, too, its landmark “Funtown Pier” sign collapsing in a hail of flames and sparks.
Christie said he suspected most affected businesses would primarily rely on insurance to rebuild.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., whose congressional district lies a few miles north of Seaside Heights, said he would ask federal officials to let the two towns use some of the federal Sandy disaster relief money to rebuild the boardwalk again.
“There’s obviously a pot of money out there,” Pallone said. “If we can use it for this, we should.”